Spring flowers on Angel Island State Park

We, the park lovers, want more than temporary reprieves

I love our state’s parks. I moved to California in 2005 lured by the promise of Silicon Valley’s technical prowess and San Francisco’s quirky, socially liberal and mildly insane personality. I’ve stayed because of the beautifully majestic world beyond that. Where else can you go skiing, skateboarding and surfing in one day? Hell, you could even throw in mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, standup paddle boarding or any number of other sports in that list if you wanted.

There is nothing more humbling than watching the ocean crash against the shores of one of our state beaches, especially the lesser visited ones. When I need grounding I need only to hike or backpack into the Sierras where the sounds of cars disappear, cell phones rarely work and the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye. I have felt awe — real, honest-to-goodness, overwhelming wonder — when in the backcountry of some of our state and national parks. My day-to-day is in an urban center, but my life joys are in the parks.

And that’s why I’ve been following so closely all the news about the potential park closures due to the budget shortfall. You can’t put a price on those emotionally and physically enriching experiences, and the cost of losing them is far more than money itself.

Last Friday the Sacramento Bee reported news that was, to put it mildly, unbelievable. After more than a year of following the heart-wrenching, roller coaster news about the 70 parks on the chopping block because of a $22 million budget shortfall, we learned of a more than $54 million surplus allocated to parks that was never disclosed.

The California State Parks Foundation, an independent non-profit that has been fighting to save our parks, quickly followed the news with a press release that expressed eloquently the emotions I felt with words like “dismay,” “frustrated,” “angry,” “shocked” and “disappointed” (although a rewrite cut that last word from the release).

It’s been nearly a week since then and I’m still trying to come up with my own words to express my personal shock and dismay. Flabbergasted, disheartened, pissed off all come to mind, but just don’t seem strong enough to really say what I’m feeling.

We, the park lovers, have watched the entire system of our beloved public institution crumble over the years as cutback after cutback have led to campground closures, buildings falling into disrepair, bathrooms no longer being stocked, trails becoming overgrown, and the number of rangers dwindling. We have stepped up to donate our time and our money to give a temporary reprieve to our parks, even in some cases taking on the actual responsibility of running the parks (or against our better judgment accepting that in some cases a commercial company running the park is better than it closing entirely). We have been putting bandaids on a broken system to help it continue to limp along because we are not willing to allow it to go to the grave. Everything we’ve done was on a simple premise that the state simply didn’t have the money to keep those 70 parks on life support any longer and we, the park lovers, were not willing to let them die if we could do anything to stop it.

So news of the surplus money was a sucker punch in the gut. But the reality is we haven’t just won the lottery and our park problems remain.

What now?

The fact is $54 million (even if it were all in a fund for park discretionary usage, which it is not) isn’t enough to save our parks when you consider the reported $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance and the more than $50 million in park budget cuts in the last four years.

My hope, though, is that it is used to extend the park closure reprieve while some real solutions are put in place to make our public park system fiscally sustainable. The one thing we’ve learned this year is that there are a heck of a lot of people who want to support our parks. The unfortunate outcome though has been to hand over control of parks in one-off deals to outside organizations undermining the entire concept of a public institution. It is a temporary solution, not a long-term one.

Some potential solutions

Disclaimer: I am not an accountant. I have not done an audit on whether the ROI (return on investment) for these ideas makes them worthwhile; I’ll leave that to the experts. This is just a list of suggestions both my own and some that have been discussed in the legislature over the last year.

  • State park vanity license plates
  • Charge parking fees at parks currently without them
  • Implement automated fee collection machines that can take credit cards
  • Institute a system-wide volunteer program to help with the deferred maintenance and tap into corporate volunteering programs to build a robust volunteer workforce (this could be a partnership with and expansion of the California State Parks Foundation’s Park Champions program)
  • Let people donate while at a park to specific park needs via SMS message – i.e. “help us restore this building. Text #xxxx to give $10 toward that effort”
  • Raise taxes
  • Allow limited corporate sponsorships, such as sponsoring of trail signs or printed materials, giving a sponsor a logo on those limited aspects of a park (I’d draw the line against selling naming rights but smaller sponsorships could be be a win-win)
  • Provide for-fee programs like weekly yoga in the park, photography training expeditions and additional wedding venue options
  • Expand and market group camping options at park campgrounds
  • Let users donate to the parks via their tax returns
  • Partner with a bank for a State Parks credit card (with various images of our state parks) where 1% of all purchases is donated to the park system

What are your ideas for long-term fiscal solutions? Tell us in the comments below!